The Mayflower of Life

June 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

“Fate: ‘what has been spoken,’ a power beyond men’s control that is held to determine what happens” (Webster’s Intermediate Dictionary 270). Everywhere in the world, people attribute events to fate because of the belief that one has no control over one’s own life. People freely donate their lives to destiny because they believe life will happen according to a master plan, and they cannot help what happens to them. Therefore they do not try to change their life’s path. In literature, authors have often discussed this master plan in the medium of fate versus free will. Some authors support a fatalistic perspective, others promote free will. One of the writers who has mulled greatly upon this topic is Kurt Vonnegut. Among the many devices used by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, to support the side of a world ruled entirely by fate are setting, structure, and allusion.One tool used in Slaughterhouse-Five to promote a fatalistic view is setting. Vonnegut often creates premonitions of fate by making connections between the environments of different time periods during the life of his main character, Billy Pilgrim. The author can create fear or happiness or an impending sense of doom by his description of the scenery and characters, such as the Tralfamadorians. By linking various conflicts and characters with their settings, Vonnegut manages to show that the participants in the story are controlled by their environment, not by their free will, as is the popular American belief. Numerous times in the text, Vonnegut does not express a particular emotion about a terrible event, conveying a feeling of fate to the reader precisely because of this apparent lack of feeling. Vonnegut often uses very descriptive imagery of the milieu to convey a feeling that the characters in the scene are ruled by an outside power that has arranged each creature much in the manner of players upon a chess board. Early in the novel, Billy recalls one of his experiences in the army. Billy has been traveling with two scouts and another teenager behind German lines for a few days. A group of German civilians find the Americans out in a quiet forest. The Germans discover the two scouts lying in a clump of bushes and Roland Weary trying to beat Billy Pilgrim to death. Billy, dumfounded, can think of nothing but the angelic face of the young German boy who helps him to his feet, not minding that these very people who rescued Billy have just murdered two men who are now lying, dying, on the ground not very far away. Vonnegut writes:Three inoffensive bangs came from far away. They came from German rifles. The two scouts who had ditched Billy and Weary had just been shot. They had been lying in ambush for Germans. They had been discovered and shot from behind. Now they were dying in the snow, feeling nothing, turning the snow to the color of raspberry sherbet. So it goes (Vonnegut 54).One has a feeling of remorse for the scouts who are dying, but Vonnegut seems to cover up the terrible reality of death while still revealing some of the gory details in the star-crossed setting. One has a feeling that the scouts were destined to die, and the Germans to live, that the scouts were fated to be discovered while waiting to ambush the very people who kill them. Vonnegut uses the raspberry sherbet to express details in the setting, and “so it goes” to promote a feeling of predestined doom. One gathers this sentiment from the sadness of the setting and the way Vonnegut writes so nonchalantly, implying that the deaths were inevitable, that the scouts had to be discovered for Billy to be saved from Roland Weary and continue his pilgrimage through life, for if Billy Pilgrim had been killed, fate’s plan would have been disrupted. At another point in the story, Billy Pilgrim has arrived in a German prison camp. After the horror stories that one has heard about the terrible mistreatment of captives at prison camps during World War Two, one is surprised to find that Billy and the other Americans have survived the showers and are now hustled through gate after gate to their sleeping quarters. One has often heard of the creative services the Nazis invented for the showers, thus creating the reader’s surprise to find the “victims” in a German camp without unharmed beyond the beginnings of starvation. Vonnegut uses the setting to play upon the nerves of the reader by setting up a terrible death that the fatigued Americans are prepared to walk right into, no questions asked. Billy recalls:The Americans halted. They stood there quietly in the cold. The sheds they were among were outwardly like thousands of other sheds they had passed. There was this difference, though: the sheds had tin chimneys, and out of the chimneys whirled constellations of sparks (Vonnegut 93).There is a sense of unavoidable death in the description of the prisoner-of-war camp. This apprehension originates from the horrendous deaths of the Jewish people when they were burned in ovens and ground down to be used as bars of soap and buttons. If the Americans feel this or fear this harmful end, there is no sign; they seem resigned to their fate. If it is the fate of the soldiers to die, they will not fuss, but stand quietly waiting in the cold for fate to carry out their lot. It seems that the Americans feel, after the long journey they have just endured within cattle cars for days without end, fate might as well have her way, and there is no point in resisting what must ultimately happen to them. Vonnegut uses this somewhat terrifying nighttime setting to convey a helplessness and resignation to fate. Later, Billy is on Tralfamadore with Montana Wildhack. The Tralfamadorians do not believe in free will because they can see both the past and the future and therefore do not understand that it is possible to change one’s future. Hence the Tralfamadorians follow the “lesson plan” that they see fate has set out for them. Occasionally, the Tralfamadorians change time, speeding it up and slowing it down as suits them. Montana and Billy have adjusted to the variations, and in time the Tralfamadorian clock is no longer a common topic of conversation, a terse statement sufficing to explain what is happening. Montana remarks simply, “‘They’re playing with the clocks again,’ said Montana, rising, preparing to put the baby into its crib. She meant that their keepers were making the electric clocks in the dome go fast, then slow, then fast again” (Vonnegut 208). Miss Wildhack seems resigned to her fate on Tralfamadore, that the clocks will be changed, and she may not understand what is happening. The domes in this setting connect one’s mind to the great blue sky of the earth, and the earthly and Tralfamadorian shared belief in fate. Therefore, this quote links both Tralfamadore and the Earth through a common description of setting.Another literary device used by Kurt Vonnegut displaying a fatalistic perspective is structure. Many times throughout the novel, the author uses a shifty and irregular structure, floating between events in the story of Billy Pilgrim’s life. This structure almost implies that Vonnegut has no control over the order of the text and therefore no control over life itself, even if only on paper. Vonnegut tells how the story ends before it begins, creating the destiny of the story before the reader has even commenced to make any conclusions about the content. Vonnegut writes:It begins like this:Listen:Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.It ends like this:Poo-tee-weet? (Vonnegut 22).With the structure of this introduction, Vonnegut is creating the destiny of his book. The format of Slaughterhouse-Five makes relations form in one’s mind with the Tralfamadorian novels, and from the Tralfamadorian novels, one’s mind is connected again with fate because of the strong Tralfamadorian belief in fate. Billy tried to read a Tralfamadorian novel once, then commented on its structure, how it was organized, or disorganized, in a rather patternless way. An alien responds, “‘There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects'” (Vonnegut 88). People often remark that Vonnegut’s novel appears to be a Tralfamadorian book. Vonnegut uses this loose structure so that, when the book is read, there is a feeling about life that is extremely insightful in certain areas. By relating Slaughterhouse-Five to a Tralfamadorian novel, one must also think of the Tralfamadorian belief in fate. Vonnegut’s artistic style, what one might call structure, seems to appear often in his disconnected ordering of the events. The author skips “randomly” between events in Billy Pilgrim’s life, traveling through time and space, creating the effect of a Tralfamadorian novel, sans the pleasant, harmonious feeling one receives after reading one such novel. One example of this irregular pattern is evident in Billy’s attempts to inform the world about his experiences on Tralfamadore. At one moment, Billy is in a radio station, the next he is at a hotel on Earth, and then he is back on Tralfamadore. By the end of the novel, such skips create a feeling that Tralfamadore is Billy’s true home, not the Earth. Vonnegut writes of Billy, “He was gently expelled from the studio during a commercial. He went back to his hotel room, put a quarter into the Magic Fingers machine connected to his bed, and went to sleep. He traveled in time back to Tralfamadore. ‘Time-traveling again?’ said Montana” (Vonnegut 206-207). This quote evokes a feeling that Tralfamadore is Billy Pilgrim’s true home because of Billy’s lack of discomfort on this strange planet and his willingness to accept that he was destined to be kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians and transported to a foreign zoo for observation. One obtains a sense of fate in everything Billy does pertaining to his kidnapping and removal from the Earth, his willingness to wait in the backyard for the Tralfamadorian saucer, his acceptance that he will eventually die from a laser shot at a conference when speaking upon the subject of the Tralfamadorians. Billy’s life on Earth is like an unreal extension of his life on Tralfamadore, a quasi-body formed on the Earth for Billy’s entertainment and adventure. Vonnegut uses this structure to form a mold of a fatalistic world by concocting a compound of events that are so disorganized that they could not possibly happen to anyone but Billy because fate has destined his life to be incoherent and disrelated. In this way, Vonnegut uses structure very effectively for his purpose.A final instrument that often appears in this novel is allusion. Vonnegut uses examples all the time that, on the surface, have no connection with the events of a Billy’s life. However, the examples sink into one’s mind and eventually form a general sense of fate by linking the lives of the characters with the lives of people who have already lived and experienced destiny, people whose history has been recorded as an example of the necessity of certain events. Vonnegut makes many connections with Biblical people who were fated to die a certain way, knowing beforehand what their fate would be if they committed a certain sin, but still committing the sin because, even then, these people were human and could not live otherwise. One specific example can be found in Lot’s wife, a woman who has endured many hardships and has finally been evicted from her home because the Lord is about to burn the city and wishes to save Lot’s family. The only way that Lot and his entourage can remain innocent is to walk away from the city without looking back. However, even though Lot’s wife knew the consequences, she still looked back. Vonnegut introduces his book, “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back?But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt?This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt” (Vonnegut 22). Vonnegut is comparing himself to the star-crossed wife of Lot, a woman who knew before leaving that she would be turned into salt if she looked back, but she did look back. The author compares himself to this woman because he is looking back, so perhaps his book is a failure because looking back has turned him into a pillar of salt, but fate had previously decreed that Vonnegut and Lot’s wife would both look back, Vonnegut to his war years and Lot’s wife to the city of her former residence. Later, Vonnegut uses the name of the city in which Billy Pilgrim lives to allude to the journey of Odysseus, a Greek warrior who knew that if he went to war against the Trojans, he would not return home for twenty years. Though he tried hard to prove this curse untrue, Odysseus, though he came time and again so close to his home, did not reach Greece again until twenty years after he had left. The narration says, “Billy was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York” (Vonnegut 23). Ilium is the Greek word for the city of Troy, the city fated by the Greek gods to be destroyed by the Greek army. Another Biblical allusion that appears often throughout the novel is the comparison of Billy Pilgrim to Christ Jesus. One often wonders at this comparison, for its origin is not immediately apparent. However, one quote explains this allusion, describing Billy’s features, habits, and emotions. Vonnegut records, “Billy cried little, though he often saw things worth crying about, and in that respect, at least, he resembled the Christ of the carol” (Vonnegut 197). The carol referred to is “Away in the Manger,” a song unique for its peaceful description of Jesus’ humble birth and surroundings, as well as the young babe’s response to his new habitat. Billy is portrayed as a young child, naïve and wondering at his surroundings, yet peaceful and quiet. However, this is only shown by allusion because Vonnegut never clearly states how young and innocent Billy was when he went off to war. Billy Pilgrim’s naiveté is shown only in the way he responds to the war, and how the war has made him a weeping and disconnected young man permanently, a man so confused that he commits himself to an insane asylum and refuses to see his own mother, though he cannot say why. Billy’s whole life is alluded to as a fated journey that someone has to endure, and Billy Pilgrim happens to be just the candidate fate was looking for.Three literary devices that Vonnegut uses to promote a theme of fate are the atmosphere of the scenes, the construction of his writing, and the insinuation to other connections to fate. Heavily used by the author throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, these utensils are seen everywhere in the literary field. Authors often use literary tools to help them convey a theme to their audience. I find that Vonnegut’s writing argues a valid point that life itself is controlled by an outside force often referred to as fate. However, I have a conflicting opinion because I find that life is one great tree: with every forking branch is a decision, and these decisions come without end. If one sits back and watches one’s life roll by, one is simply taking the straight, wide path, but not necessarily the correct path. Vonnegut implies that Billy Pilgrim could not have prevented his relocation to Tralfamadore, but I beg to differ because he could have simply decided to go to bed and let the aliens return home without any results. Billy does not contest anything put before him, but this does not help to mold him into the best man he could be. One may have certain physical limitations, but people have shown that even these can be overcome by the desire to overcome these disabilities. I believe that God puts decisions before us to make us better people, but the right decisions are not always easy. “I took the road less traveled and it has made all the difference.”

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